Mat@MDickie.com
Dave Wishnowski Interview














 


~ March 2009 ~
There's only one human being alive that knows hard how I worked on the games, and that's
Dave Wishnowski who has been bank-rolling his own independent wrestling project - Pro
Wrestling X
. In this interview, the next big thing locks horns with the retired veteran...

I don't think anyone can question the role that game development played in shaping your life for the last few years, and obviously you didn't take the decision to retire lightly. What are you feeling now that your decision is final? Relief? Pride? Resentment, or possibly bitterness?
Yes, making games in the way I did was more than a job to me - it was a way of life. I spent every waking hour thinking about my career and making it unfold as planned. The half-hearted approach wouldn't have worked. I set myself the task of taking on the entire games industry single-handedly and had to commit myself to the cause. That was both the reason my time was so exciting AND the reason it had to come to an end. You simply can't sustain that level of intensity when it's not paying off. Towards the end, how hard I worked was vastly out of synch with what I got out of it - both financially and spiritually - so I had no qualms about wrapping things up. There's a definite sense of relief. Looking back, I can't believe I did it all those years! But I'm proud that I did. The other day, I was looking over the hundreds of thousands of lines of code that went into Wrestling MPire 2008, and all the visual media, and I couldn't believe that I was responsible for it. It was like looking at someone else's work! I can't imagine embarking on a project like that now. The way I see it, an interesting chapter in my life has drawn to a natural close. People can dismiss me as a "failure" all they want. The fact is that I spent 10 years doing something that most people couldn't do for 10 minutes. And I retired by choice, having spent 18 months ending things the way I wanted to end them. How many people can say that? If I was still making games for a living, I'd be just another victim of the worldwide recession. I figure I cashed in my chips at the best possible time...

You say it was your intention to "take on the entire game industry." You've certainly made some fans, but how do you think your efforts have impacted the game industry itself? How would the industry be different today if you hadn't made your games?
What I meant by that was that I took on the task of single-handedly doing what an entire company does. I got my arms around it and turned a team game into a solo pursuit. I believe I achieved that with games like Wrestling MPire 2008, which were as big and sophisticated as anything you
would have found on a mainstream console a few years previously. It wasn't my intention to "eradicate" game development as we know it. That was neither possible nor necessary. I was simply a thorn in the side of a giant, forcing it to react in some way. Even the most passionate gamer has to admit that there's something not quite right about the mainstream. The games are made by faceless corporations, they're a long time coming, and they cost a fortune once they're finished. I wanted to usher in a more vibrant process which was fun to watch unfold and cheap to buy into. Most game designers want to follow in the footsteps of filmmakers, but music was my role model. That steady flow of personal content that means something to people. As it turned out, people couldn't look past the lapses in quality and never embraced my work in large numbers. I still believe it's possible on some level though. If you look at Family Guy and The Simpsons, they're not works of art - they just captured the public's imagination with the right idea. I predict that an independent game designer will have that impact one day. If I inspire them to make a start then that's good enough for me...

Solo game developers can take different routes to success. What would you say you have in common with guys like Jeff Minter and Adam Ryland? Where do you differ? And how are the games themselves affected positively or negatively by the choices a solo game developer makes?
I'm always accused of being "arrogant" when I make this point, but I honestly don't feel anybody does what I do. There's always something missing. They either don't make games of the same sophistication or they don't churn them out consistently like a real studio. As for why that's the case, that's another matter. Maybe they don't want to. There are certainly downsides to doing what I did. There are limitations on what's possible and how much is possible. But the real big bonus was how quick it was. People imagine it being harder to make a game on your own, but nothing compares to being able to bring something to life instantly - whether it's visual, aural, or technical. Some things I did in a matter of seconds would literally take days to come to fruition in an office! It would be a 5-way conversation that never ends. That goes for creativity too. 90% of the ideas I made a success of would have been shot down in a team environment (or by an unadventurous publisher). The price is right too because there's only one person to pay and you can pass that saving on to the customer. Some people just can't forgive the inevitable flaws though, so it's not a recipe for critical success...

You raise an interesting point that seems to clarify your priorities and goals. Your detractors have pointed out there are many other solo developers producing games of varying quality. But you point out the speed and quantity of your production a major source of pride, perhaps more so than the final product itself. Would you say that's a fair assessment?
No, I'm laying claim to both quantity AND quality. My games might lack this or that compared to a mainstream release, but I don't concede quality to many other independent outfits - certainly not a solo one. I don't believe anybody is capable of making bigger or better games in the same
circumstances. Myself included! Each project was as good as I could possibly muster at the time. There's no scenario in which spending more time on them would have made them better. In each case I achieved what I wanted to and the speed was a side effect. Just because a game doesn't "look" perfect, it doesn't mean it hasn't been perfectly executed. If Wrestling MPire 2008 looked any better, or had any more content, then the game engine might have fallen apart. It's all a balancing act where you do the best you can with the clay you have. That's where the developer often parts ways with his audience. The fans have an imaginary wish-list a mile long. The developer has to worry about what WORKS...

In your opinion then, what tops your list as the most innovative feature of any of your wrestling games?
My big thing was "freedom" - both in the ring and behind the scenes. A lot of people complain about gameplay elements that are missing, but the fact is that the level of interaction is incredibly high in my games. I gave the wrestling genre its first interactive entrances, customizable match rules with dozens of participants, moves that could change halfway through, and an unprecedented level of interaction with items - whether you're holding them or smashing through them. My matches had that anarchic feel where anything could happen. Players often tell me about pulling off spots that I had never even thought of! That's what I wanted - a playground where wrestling fans could write their own stories. And that extends backstage where you respond to hundreds of different situations and negotiate your own contracts. All massively revolutionary stuff that turned wrestling into more of an RPG than a mindless beat 'em-up...

Freedom is also reflected in the healthy mod communities that your games have spawned. What's your relationship like with such communities? Do you think they contribute to your past success or hinder it in any way?
Yeah, that freedom extended to having access to every single piece of media in the games! That's the way I always wanted it to be. When I was coming up, I was thrilled when I realized a game's graphics or sounds were right there to be changed. You feel like you're making your own game.
Unfortunately, that's what tended to happen with my fan communities. They set themselves up against me as though they were my "competitors". They hardly ever got in touch with me about what they were doing, and I never had time to dig things up myself because I was focused on my own projects. So the answer to your question is that I never had a relationship with the mod
community. I would credit them with contributing to the game's success though. They obviously enjoyed the wrestling series more than anybody else, and the fun they were having must have been contagious. My only problem was that the websites always ended up being "forums" for some reason, which opened the floodgates to a lot of negativity. It's no secret that I'm not impressed with the way people conduct themselves on the Internet, and I needed to distance myself from that. I always wanted to support their creations, but couldn't do it without compromising my life's work. I suppose it would OK to link to a few things now that the nature of my career has changed...

That raises another interesting point. Negativity is easy to spot on the internet and posts saying "Mat's games suck" are easy to find. But tell us then who your fans are? What kind of gamers are enjoying your games for what they are? What kinds of positive feedback are you getting and are you going to miss that?
Yes, my amateurish work has always been easy to criticize. And yet the irony is that I flew closer to the mainstream than any other independent, so I was almost too popular for my own good at one point! I attracted the attention of thousands of casual fans that didn't particularly care how a game was made. That was fatal for me because the backbone of my work was how miraculous it was. If you don't appreciate that then you're left making unfair comparisons to the latest THQ release. But it works both ways. As I say towards the end of my book, the few fans that do "get it" are one in a million. If you see the good in my work then it says as much about you as it does about me. It takes a lot of integrity to look past the flaws and to appreciate how hard somebody worked. Anybody can roll their eyes and criticize you. It requires nothing...

Do you believe then that a game should always be judged in the context of its development circumstances? Is it always unfair to judge a game strictly on its own merits?
No, I appreciate that the player is entitled to feel however they want about a product they're paying money for. It's just a shame is all. The ideal is to nail both - have a good game which was made in remarkable circumstances. I honestly feel I achieved that. I don't see many 3D wrestling games that are bigger and more engrossing than mine were - especially not on the PC. So it comes back to the realization that the best isn't good enough, and that's a depressing place to be. It's not just me though. One of the biggest factors in my retirement has nothing to do with my games - it was Street Fighter IV. I was blown away by a trailer on YouTube and scrolled down expecting to see some excitable comments - but 90% of them were negative! If a game that looks like that isn't worth getting excited about, I honestly don't know what is. It was a stunning achievement. I'm not saying YouTube is the be all and end all of entertainment (Street Fighter IV is obviously going to succeed regardless). It's just symptomatic of the fact that there's no goodwill anymore. At the risk of sounding vulgar, it's like being a prostitute of sorts. People are attracted to you, they throw money at you, and they enjoy their time with you - but at no point do they "respect" you...

So testing your own personal limits was more important to you than satisfying certain gamers' demands or expectations, true? Is that why you never felt the need to hire people to work under you and take your games beyond those limits?
No, it's a myth that I pursued my solo career to the detriment of my work. There's no scenario in which working with others would have yielded better results. As I keep pointing out, where are these imaginary works of art that were made by teams? They either don't make it past the finish line or they don't work once they do. And where are these people economically? They're clocking up debts - not profits. People can look down on me all they want, but I'm the one that dragged 20 published products over the finish line and never lost a penny on a single one. It's easy to criticize the guy that's getting things done because his work is there to see. Everybody else is living in a land of make-believe. At the end of the day, the whole point of my work was that I was different. Me working in a team would be like Michael Jackson becoming a backing singer. It's not on the agenda...

Was the lack of respect surprising to you? The internet is full of people who make it a priority to crap all over other people's efforts for whatever reason, justified or not. Why let those kind of people get to you at all if you truly love what you do? I'll admit, I thought you were nuts for putting out your Michael Jackson game but at the same time I really admired your willingness to openly stand by your decision and say, "Yeah I made the game. Don't like it? Bite me!" To me, that's the definition of being independent. No one will ever accuse you of being a gutless people-pleaser. I think I already know the answer to this question, but any regrets about any of your game design decisions?
Yeah, the irony is that I wasn't one for caring what people think! I wouldn't have lasted 8 years if I was that sensitive. The problem for me is that I've definitely seen it get worse over that time. The negative people went from being a minority to being the majority. The bottom line is that it simply stopped being fun for me, and that's the only reason you would work as hard as I did. I'm not bitter about it though, because everything worked out as it should. It was just a natural process of giving all you have to give and then moving on. The ill will just convinced me that the time had come. I don't have too many regrets because I did the best I could on every single project, and they were all stepping stones to the same destination. People might bristle at the odd experimental project, but they were all part of the puzzle and we wouldn't have had Wrestling MPire 2008 without them. As
I say in my book, for me it was always about the bigger picture - even if I was the only one that could see it!

So what's next for you? Can you exist out of the spotlight or do you still need to doing something in the public eye?
It makes me laugh when people think my life has fallen apart without games! The whole point was that I was a jack of all trades and had a lot of strings to my bow. That's why it was always so tempting to do something else. Believe it or not, the "spotlight" is one of the things I wanted to put behind me. Answering to thousands of people isn't all it's cracked up to be. It can be a lot of pressure and it can bring out the worst in you. Part of me is looking forward to living a more humble life. That said, I'm a public speaker of sorts - teaching philosophy and ethics - so the desire to entertain and inspire people is still there. That was always my ambition with the games. I wanted to become a public figure that could drag independent game development out of the dungeon and put it firmly on that map. It never really panned out that way though because I was snubbed by the
industry itself. The public were the only ones that liked what I was doing...

I think people will be surprised to hear Mat Dickie use the word 'humble'! Seriously though, the industry reception is another topic I'd like to touch on. I understand that a "Best Blitz3D games" list was published and none of your games even made the list? Even the most committed MDickie hater might find that hard to believe. And then I believe there was a snub against you made by a certain game developers association. Would you care to talk about those things and how peer feedback can affect your morale in a different way than fan feedback?
It's right there on their home page. BlitzBasic.com has a list of "great games" made in Blitz and you'll never see mine listed among them. It's a shame because I was actually a good ambassador for the product. Literally thousands of people were exposed to it because of me, and I'm always happy to endorse it because it gave me a career. Its developers just aren't on the same wavelength as me though. I don't think there's much malice involved. They just haven't got a clue why somebody would get excited about a wrestling game. I got that vibe from the magazines, conventions, and award ceremonies too. Even at the height of its popularity, there was a prejudice against wrestling content. Even THQ got bad press at shows. I remember reading an article where a journalist was wondering why thousands of people were queuing up to play "some wrestling game or other" at E3. Sometimes you can be too popular for your own good and people score points by pretending you don't exist! Like when Mickey Rourke deserved the Oscar and never got it. You just roll your eyes and leave them to it. The truth speaks for itself...

Do you believe that explains the general negativity towards you and your work? That people ignore you or lash out due to jealousy and insecurity? If so, how do you determine what is personally motivated criticism versus genuine and honest feedback?
It's very simple - sincere comments are sent to me directly! When people take things public, you know they're more interested in causing trouble than getting answers. That used to happen on the Blitz forums all the time. A public thread would raise questions about me and my work, and then the floor would be open to rabid speculation. Never once did they direct their questions to me personally. They barely even visited the site for information. They were like trashy journalists that would rather make up a sordid fabrication than seek the truth. The You Testament was a good example. Within 24 hours of its release, they denounced me as a Bible-bashing "preacher". You only had to read the game's blurb to realize that was the exact opposite of what I was trying to achieve! At the end of the day, such ignorant opinions never held any weight for me. We're talking about a minority here after all. I wasn't interested in gaining the approval of a few hundred programmers; I was interested in reaching a few hundred THOUSAND members of the public...

The public has certainly had a fair amount of things to say about you. I'd like to share with you a few things I've seen people write about you and get your response:

"Mat Dickie is quitting game development to become a spiritual leader"
That's a bit misleading. I TEACH about philosophy in a scholarly manner, calling upon a sound understanding of all cultures and subscribing to no one in particular. Assuming I want to be a "spiritual leader" would be like assuming a history teacher wants to be Hitler...

"Mat could never work with anyone else because he's too much of a maverick to be controlled."
It's true that I wouldn't "enjoy" it and therefore wouldn't choose to do it. But as we discussed earlier, it's a myth that me working in a team would be some sort of Holy Grail of progress anyway...

"I don't consider it an achievement just because he made them. I can make a pizza and if it tastes like crap, nobody's going to pat me on the back just because I made it myself. Especially if I tell people that I'm the best pizza maker in the world."
I can understand where he's coming from. People are entitled to not care about my methods if they don't like the results. My argument is that I wasn't churning out "crap" towards the end. I was responsible for some of the biggest and most enjoyable games on the independent scene. To use his analogy, he's comparing my frozen pizza to one that he ate at an Italian restaurant...

"If Mat upgraded to a better game engine his games would be way better."
I don't apologize for the quality of my games. Anybody can "imagine" the perfect game. My job was to steer a dream into the rocky world of reality. I believe I did the best job I could possibly do within the constraints of the average PC. Better graphics and more content would have produced a beautiful game that nobody could play. To be honest, I was pushing my luck with the game that I put out...

"The Wrestling MPire games will always be remembered for one thing and one thing only: severed limbs."
I'm not sure if that's a compliment or a criticism?! If they're suggesting that's the only feature that's remotely innovative or entertaining, then they may like to look out for the hundred or so other
innovations that you can't find in any other wrestling game. Gotta catch 'em all!

Let's change gears a bit. Which question do you wish someone had asked you in an interview but never did?
People never seemed comfortable about portraying me as a person - with a life that preceded the games and how those experiences shaped my work, etc. That's why it was so much fun to write the book. There's a lot of key information in there that would never come to light any other way. Stuff that makes sense of my independent attitude. Now that I'm retired, I suppose the most interesting question is what would I be doing now if I was still making games? How would MDickie reinvent himself for 2009 and beyond? That's an interesting question to ponder because I would definitely be switching things up after using the same old programming language since 2002!

Care to hazard an answer to those questions?
The irony is that things wouldn't be so different if I was still making games. I'd be done with Blitz after taking it to the limit with The You Testament, and there'd be a little down-time while I got to grips with a new language or new technology. I'd probably be spreading myself thin by exploring all avenues. I was tired of my games being too demanding to work on all computers, so I would probably go back to basics with things like Flash and create content that works for any web user. In an ideal world, I'd create content for these new mobile phones and really set that alight. Create some innovative concepts that millions of people have access to in their pocket. Back on the sophisticated side of things, I would be doing whatever it took to make X-Box game development a reality with XNA. Then success would be assured on outlets like X-Box Live. You see, the biggest
problem for me was that independent game development had no outlet on the PC. There was no one place where you could release a game and get the attention you deserved - like musicians breaking on the radio. If that ever changes then I'd be tempted back onto the scene. My days of committing my life to it are over, but there's no reason why I can't dabble in it as a hobby. The only thing that stops me doing that is that I feel I'd be wasting my time. The atmosphere isn't right...

So what is next for you then? What has your time and attention these days?
As I said earlier, I work in a more scholarly field now - sharpening up my knowledge of philosophy and ethics with a view to teaching the subject. It was starting to bleed into the writing on my website anyway (much to the chagrin of people that just wanted to play the games!), so I thought I might as well put my money where my mouth is and get it out of my system. I may
not commit my life to it. I just want to add that string to my bow so that I've got a bit more to offer life. I'd be having panic attacks if I was still self-employed now! Making games was fun, but it wasn't a stable way to make a living...

Wherever the future takes you, Mat, I personally wish you nothing but the best. You've certainly entertained people with the games you've made and the things you've said. Whether you're viewed as a brilliant pioneer or bat-shit insane, at least you can never be accused of being boring. For our final question, is there anything you'd like to say to our readers before we say goodbye?
Thank you, and good luck with you're own projects (you're gonna need it!). Yes, as I admitted in my book, all I ever wanted to do was make the games industry a more interesting place. As a wrestling fan and a music fan, I saw those industries flourish as their stars became more and more outspoken. I just wanted to bring the same splash of colour to game development, and perhaps wake a few kids up to the fact that it's something THEY can do - not something that robots produce in a laboratory. Some people got it, some people didn't. To those that did, thank you for your insight and support. To those that didn't, look a little harder the next time someone tries to achieve something. But don't take any of it too seriously. It's all just a game...

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